Sunday, May 8, 1977
Barton Hall, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY
Audience & Soundboard Recordings
5/8/77 Barton Hall, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY is heralded as the best Grateful Dead show of all time. How does one even attempt to put this tape into perspective? If you do any research at all (heck, you might have just found this writing here by doing just such research), you will quickly come to realize that May 8th, 1977 holds a very special place in the hearts of Deadheads. But it’s far more than that. This tape (not the show, but the tape itself) is the living breathing example of a sum being more than its parts. While many people might think it’s the show, it is actually the tape that holds all the star-like status.
First things first: 5/8/77 is without a doubt a very very good show. There is magic going on in Dancin’, Scarlet>Fire, NFA, and Morning Dew that make it a must to be heard (thus its inclusion in the GDLG). But, as a show, it’s not necessarily the best ever. It's not light years beyond the music that surrounds it in May of 1977. May ’77 is simply blessed as a pinnacle tour for the Grateful Dead. Much like the Fillmore run of February 1969, or the string of shows from June 1974, each show within each of these runs is a critical piece of the puzzle that reveals the excellence of these multi-show stretches. That said, and all props understandably due, the Cornell ’77 show is far more an example of being in the right place at the right time, than of existing completely above the level of all other performances. Yet, 5/8/77 holds a stature which points to it being far more than just the really good Dead show it is. Its legend has reached mythic proportion. In reality, it’s the tape, and its historical place in our tape trading community, - not the show itself - that holds the true honors associated with this date.
Here’s the thing, the 5/8/77 tape was one of the earliest “A+” quality soundboards to get into mass circulation, and not even too many years after its performance. From a tape trading perspective, Ithaca ’77 was like a banner carrying sojourner who travelled hundreds of miles from home representing the monument of music that was May 1977. The sojourner had good reason to set off on the journey. 1977 is very impressive. For many, May 1977, the most impressive month of a year that is perceived as the best year of them all. It’s somehow cosmically fitting that a tape from this run managed to leak out of the vault very early on, allowing the mythical story of the Grateful Dead to have one hell of a soundtrack. But the truth is, when you stack May 8th, 1977 against the rest of the month, it is simply another shining example of what was happening musically around it at the time. In fact, you can only really gain a full appreciation of what was so special about this month by hearing the rest of it.
With such a large songbook, you almost always do best to look at the Grateful Dead across multiple shows. It’s not enough to simply hear Dancin’ In The Streets and Scarlet>Fire from 5/8 in May '77. You need to hear what the band was doing with Help>Slip>Franklin’s, Playin’ In The Band, Eyes of the World, Other One, etc.., let alone all the first set song magic going at this point of their career. Now, I know this immediately sounds like something only a tape trading freak would say. After all, you don’t *have to* hear the rest of the month to know how great the Dead were in 1977 - 5/8/77 demonstrates this amply. The point is, most people give so much credit to this date, that it makes one think it may have been a startling stand out of a show. It was not. It was just a really nice glimpse into a historic portion of the Grateful Dead’s evolution as a band.
Because this tape went into circulation early, and in such high quality, it literally ended up everywhere, pervading everything. Much like our own solar system’s sun shines so brightly in the sky as to block out the light from the other billions of suns no more or less its equal, Cornell ’77 is like our sun in the daytime sky of Dead tapes. You can’t miss it, and it’s so dominant, that just about everyone refers to it as a shining example of what being a sun is all about. It’s a false, yet understandable perspective.
5/8/77 is the most easily recognizable example of Dead tapes there is, and being such a good show, people have come to call it the best ever. This happened, not because the show was something so much more amazing than any other, – it wasn’t picked to be exactly the one 1977 SBD to get into early circulation in pristine quality because someone decided it was really the best show ever – it just happened to be a show that got into this level of circulation. The power of the Dead’s mythical, Americana, Folk-Freak Psychedelic underground subculture took over from there, and because the show was “very good,” and the tape quality was “very good,” it was swooped up in the collective energy of our entire societal subset and slowly attained the accolades that make it even more than it was. It is in this way that the show came to embody the sum of parts associated with not just the music, but the recording of the music, the nature of the music being played at the time, and the rising development of the Dead tape trading community all at the same time. Make no mistake, there is some palpable mojo connected to this show – nearly everyone has a story about it. But it’s not the best Dead show ever.
It’s like trying to definitively answer an unanswerable question of existence. Grateful Dead tape collectors would not spend hours, days, and years debating which show/run/year was the best ever if there was actually an answer staring us in the face. There is no answer. But, you gotta hand it to 5/8/77; it brought a whole slew of neophytes into the debate, sparking an obsessive love for the music of the Grateful Dead. Barton Hall, Cornell College, Ithaca, NY 1977 was in the right place at the right time.
My story around Cornell ‘77, which I’ve referred to a few times now, was that of having this tape (Dacnin’ through the end of set two) left in my car after going on a road trip from Chicago to Milwaukee to see my first Dead show in April of 1989. My then new-ish Deadhead friend, Fritz, brought along this tape and set one from 06/23/74 for the ride up, so we could get our ears wet. The very first Dead bootleg I ever heard was Cornell ’77. Burned into my brain forever is the view of driving up US94 while Jerry bore his wha-filtered Dancin’ In The Streets solo into my heart. Fritz forgot those tapes in my car. I made copies almost immediately, and hand painted some water-color tape labels to go with them. That this was the most popular Dead tape ever didn’t even become clear to me until the Internet brought me in contact with so many people and tape lists, and I began to recognize a trend – nearly every tape list, no matter how small – had Cornell ‘77 on it. The unseen energy that fostered this passionate adoration of the Dead had somehow seen to that.
It wasn’t until a few years ago that Jerry Moore’s audience recording of the Ithaca show got into wide circulation. And while there are now even better quality soundboards of 5/8/77 all over the place, I can’t help but point listeners to another top quality Moore recording from 1977.
If you’ve never heard the show, you’ll do best to just dive on in and let yourself experience this most famous show ever. However, there are a few wonderful moments along the way worth noting.
At right about the mid-point of Dancin’ In The Streets (at exactly 8:23 on the Jerry Moore AUD track), Garcia hits a short string of notes that seem to both explode and implode with electricity and power. It’s a transcendent bird chirping sound that grabs me completely. The entire solo is fantastic, but when I heard this small portion again after years and years and years, it brought me right back into the car ride from 1989.
Probably the most famous element to this show is the invisibly smooth transition from Scarlet Begonias into Fire On The Mountain. The Dead did this well in most years, most of the time. But one thing that can indeed be handed to Cornell ’77 is that it has probably the most seamless Scarlet>Fire transition of them all. So subtle is the movement from one song to another, the archived Moore AUD wisely leaves both songs as one single track. To have placed a track marker in the middle would have only served to raise a debate around whether it was placed correctly at all. Do Deadheads really have nothing better to do than argue these points? Also not to be missed are Garcia’s solos in Fire On The Mountain. They build beautifully, going from a subdued energy to an all-out blaze of guitar power. Great peaks are reached again and again.
Not Fade Away finds Garcia pushing the limits of energy again, soaring through and burning up the air around him. Late in the jam, the drummers discard the traditional NFA thumping beat and the music slips into a more rolling cascading rhythm that hints a bit at Other One. This allows the music to get nicely *out* from the NFA theme, as beats begin to fold in on themselves like flower petals. NFA returns as its own beautiful reminder that this was the song being played in the first place.
Then there’s Morning Dew. This is an all-time version, not only because the entire song is so expertly delivered, but because it contains a crescendo of all crescendos. The shredding that Jerry pulls off at the end of the song, quite literally blows the roof off the hall. The crowd is left absolutely beside itself in joy afterwards.
AUD or SBD, you can’t go wrong with this show. Whether it introduces you to May 1977, or serves as something worth a long overdue re-listening, it’s hard not to appreciate the music contained on what is easily the most famous Dead tape of them all.
05/08/77 AUD etree source info
05/08/77 AUD Download
05/08/77 SBD etree source info